The White House has been meeting with outside health experts to plan a pandemic exit strategy and a transition to a “new normal,” but the behind-the-scenes effort is crashing into a very public reality: A string of blue-state governors have gotten ahead of President Biden by suddenly abandoning their mask mandates.
Two of the administration’s top doctors — Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser for the pandemic, and Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, both expressed qualified optimism on Wednesday about the direction of the pandemic. If cases continue to fall and no new variants arise, the country “could be heading toward what we would consider more normality,” Dr. Fauci said in an interview.
But Dr. Fauci cautioned that the situation “is still unpredictable,” and said any transition out of the current crisis would be gradual. And Dr. Walensky said pointedly that while her agency is working on new guidance for the states, it is too soon for all Americans to take off their masks in indoor public places.
“Our hospitalizations are still high, our death rates are still high,” she said during a news briefing by the White House Covid response team. “So, as we work toward that and as we are encouraged by the current trends, we are not there yet.”
The gubernatorial frenzy to drop mask mandates comes as the White House Covid response coordinator, Jeffrey D. Zients, and the government’s top doctors are soliciting advice from a wide array of public health experts, including some former Biden advisers who have very publicly urged the president to shift course. Mr. Zients referenced the sessions briefly on Wednesday, saying the White House is also reaching out to governors and local public health officials to talk about “steps we should be taking to keep the country moving forward.”
The talks, according to numerous participants, are aimed at drafting a fresh playbook for the delicate next phase of the pandemic, when the coronavirus threat is likely to recede but the possibility of a new variant and another deadly surge remains very real. They are addressing a range of issues beyond masking and mitigation, from how to get new antivirals to people who test positive for the virus to whether to upgrade ventilation systems in schools.